Solving the United midfield right now has become about as unenviable a task as they come in football and it says so much that Solskjaer keeps chopping and changing between matches. Not even he knows the answer.
The Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic pairing returned at Leicester on Saturday but was badly overrun and left the vulnerable centre-back duo of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof exposed. Youri Tielemans — as he often seems to against United had a field day.
So it was hardly a surprise that Solskjaer reverted to his two most trusted central midfield lieutenants against Atalanta. He was understandably wary of the threat posed by the swashbuckling Serie A side, known for their attacking enterprise.
Yet not even the more conservative Fred and McTominay could stem the tide in the first half on Wednesday night, as Atalanta carved up a United side who were quite clearly too open.
It didn’t matter that Solskjaer had supposedly shored things up in the engine room.
The tactical truth was a little different in how it played out.
And Solskjaer had admitted himself before the game that the system was more a 4-2-4 than a coherent 4-2-3-1, saying: ” Fred and Mctominay have played well and call it the 4-2-4 system and the balance they give us has been helpful in many games.”
Paul Scholes took the headlines post-match for his rant about United’s performance, but the former midfielder hit the nail on the head when he expressed his sympathy for Fred and McTominay at half-time, with the Reds trailing 2-0, having been carved open at will. “I almost felt sorry for those two,” said the Old Trafford legend.
They were putting out fires all over the place, but they couldn’t prevent Atalanta storming into the lead.
And it was only when the 4-2-4 disappeared, with a tweak made to Bruno Fernandes’ position that United began to control the midfield area.
Fernandes has been guilty of playing too high up the pitch this season, less as a conventional playmaking No.10 and more a second striker. It’s left the two central midfielders when they have the ball looking up the pitch at four options, all being marked. And when the press comes, United are short of numbers to defend.
The only way is for Solskjaer to make sure his side are playing a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-3-3 with Fernandes much deeper almost alongside the two defensive midfielders. The Portuguese’s ability to pick a pass, play the magic assist, is wasted if he’s too close to the strikers.
He had a chaotic game against Atalanta, so poor and wasteful in the first half, but typically influential after the break. Now United have a first-choice front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, the onus shouldn’t be on Fernandes as much for goals, as was once the case.
He and Pogba are United’s creators in chief and Solskjaer must play a system that acknowledges that. Fernandes’ 2021 inconsistencies might just drain away if United get the framework right around him.